Writing That Leaves Readers With Headaches

July 10, 2013

Excedrin Migraine caplets, July 10, 2013. (http://commons.wikimedia.org).

Excedrin Migraine caplets, July 10, 2013. (http://commons.wikimedia.org).

I’m a well-practiced academic writer, and can put together a multitude of erudite compound sentences with the best of them. I can even use words like “fait accompli,” “historiography,” “teleological,” and “anachronistic” practically on demand. But writing for a group of a few hundred academic historians, educationalists or African American studies scholars has become a very limiting chore for me over the years. To the point where I find the style of writing torturous, and reading academic writing about as much fun as having the flu on a hot and humid summer day.

There are times and places where I as a writer who also is an academic historian and educator need to “take out my driver” intellectually and slam home a twenty or twenty-five page article for publication in a scholarly journal. The golfing analogy works because writing for a scholarly audience requires lengthy sentences, tons of citations, a deep knowledge of scholarly literature, a high level of analytical power, and a form of writing that is much more about discipline than creativity. Even print journalists limited to 300 words have more wiggle-room than an academic writer.

In this era of public intellectuals and easier access to the broad American reading public through multimedia and online platforms, however, the academic writer is no longer writing for colleagues with deep knowledge and sufficient patience for the turgid. Yet far too many of my more famous and successful colleagues continue to write as if their books are destined to go straight to university and major city libraries.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson, on academic writing, July 10, 2013. (http://humorinamerica.wordpress.com).

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson, on academic writing, July 10, 2013. (http://humorinamerica.wordpress.com).

In the past few months, I’ve read Baratunde Thurston’s How To Be Black, Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, Jared Diamond’s Collapse and Mark Anthony Neal’s Looking for Leroy. I can say for certainty that all of these books have good qualities as well as flaws. Baratunde’s is one that’s repetitive and too often going for the easy laugh, though somewhat thought-provoking on the many ways all of us can be “Black.” Touré’s reads like the man himself, a book that takes itself too seriously, that purports to be a higher level of thinking on race when it ultimately gets lost in its own argument. Diamond’s Collapse is a very good introduction to the calamities of human civilizations and world history for nonacademic readers, but also doesn’t provide enough nuance to show variations in patterns of decline or collapse across civilizations.

The one thing the first three books have in common is that their authors attempt to write for an audience beyond comedians, journalists and interdisciplinary academicians. For the most part, all three succeed in making their books legible to an educated reading public. Neal’s Looking for Leroy (2013), though, is pretty unsuccessful in this regard. Neal critiqued the ways in which individuals like Jay Z, Avery Brooks and Luther Vandross have navigated the rocky terrain of public stereotypes toward Black males and how they turned those stereotypes on their head with the way lived their lives and conducted their careers.

Sounds thought-provoking, except for some issues with language and audience. From the Preface on, Neal’s Looking for Leroy read as if he’d only conceived it for an academic audience. Take his chapter on Jay-Z, where Neal wrote

It is in this spirit of these observations that I’d like to suggest that hip-hop cosmopolitanism represents a fertile location to challenge the larger society’s desire to impose constraints on how hip-hop constituencies choose to embody themselves, as well as a site to challenge stridently parochial notions of masculine identity (and gender) in hip-hop, particularly those solely rooted in the local.

Neal followed up this sixty-plus word sentence with his Jay-Z chapter’s thesis, where he posits “that the constraints placed on hip-hop infused identities are analogous to the historical difficulties experienced by those blacks desiring to be read as cosmopolitan — legitimate citizens of the world.”

Mark Anthony Neal, Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (2013) cover, July 10, 2013. (http://nyupress.edu).

Mark Anthony Neal, Looking for Leroy (2013) cover, July 10, 2013. (http://nyupress.edu).

There are important nuggets to be gleaned in this chapter and in Neal’s argument. But even I as an American and African American historian had to find a shovel and dig for it as if I was part of an excavation team in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. That’s a real shame, as Neal has tenure, and this is his fifth book. I’d think someone whose platform for writing is as secure as Neal’s, whose audience includes readers outside of academia could’ve easily written Looking for Leroy to be more inclusive and engaging of them.

I’ve worked very hard over the past thirteen years to break myself of the horrid habit of academic writing when it isn’t necessary, which is most of the time. My goal has always been to engage, educate and even entertain with what I write. I’ve always wanted to be thought-provoking, not headache-inducing.

Too bad many of my more famous colleagues continue down the primrose path of writing for academia with the firm belief that the rest of the reading public must catch up to them. They don’t realize — or maybe even care — that the harder path is to write to include, and not exclude.


Know Food, Know The World

June 4, 2011

Chocolate Cake, Vanilla Icing, 2011. Source: http://www.tastebook.com

I don’t really dedicate much of my blogging to what I do these days, my college teaching work. I guess that I kick up enough dust talking about my Mount Vernon years, my Humanities years, my Carnegie Mellon years, and my former jobs and bosses as it is.

But this is a fairly positive post (mostly, anyway). It about something that I learned recently while teaching one of my World History courses. Something so simple that it’s amazing sometimes how stupid I can be.

I realized one day in discussing the age of exploitation, um, well, exploration that one of the best ways to think about this period — heck, any period in world history, really — begins and ends with one word: food. I’d taught this course a couple of times for University of Maryland University College already. Not to mention having served as a teaching assistant under the great Peter Stearns while a grad student at Carnegie Mellon a decade and a half before (see my “Ego Inflation” post from last month).

German Chocolate Cake, 2011. Source:http://blogs.courier-journal.com. Meet a cake that was never German, but named by an English guy. And, since when do coconuts grow in Europe or the US?

But on that fall evening in ’09, looking at exploration patterns, commerce patterns and the state of the world circa 1600 CE, it hit me how I could just about reorganize every aspect of the way I’d been teaching World History by just looking at how much food has influenced it. Every bite we take, everything we imbibe, has some history attached to it, and with it, stories of bloody conflict, imperial conquest or rare attempts at true humanity and cooperation.

This is about much more than Jared Diamond’s books on the rise and fall of civilizations because of resources and the lack thereof. Commodities like salt, sugar, black pepper and olive oil have all been written about over the past fifteen years. It’s fairly obvious that these spices and other foodstuffs were fundamental in the histories of the Middle East, ancient Greece and Rome, India, Timbuktu and Western Europe over the past 5,000 years.

Still, I’m not really talking about that kind of history, either. It’s more about something as simple as taking a modern dish and using its ingredients to tell a story. Take something like a chocolate cake with vanilla icing. If the ingredients are natural and not ones cooked up at a chemical plant in northern New Jersey, then they’ve come from all over the world. Cocoa, the main ingredient to mix with the flour, is from the cacao plant, which originally from South America, but is primarily produced in sub-Saharan Africa. Sugar’s needed to sweeten it, and though originally from India, has been grown in Florida, Louisiana and in the Caribbean for centuries. One of the main economic drivers for the enslavement of Africans was the European need to rot out their teeth with the stuff.

Vanilla extract or vanilla beans are originally from Mexico and other parts of Central America. But the largest producers of it are Indonesia and especially Madagascar. There’s history in every gram of devil’s food cake with vanilla icing that we eat.

You could do the same thing with a “traditional” Chinese stir-fry. Especially if ingredients like baby corn or

Sweet-and-sour-chicken, 2011. Source: http://www.foodnetwork.com

sweet and sour sauce are added to the mix. That’s because baby corn and tomatoes (the latter the main ingredient in sweet and sour sauce) are both from the Americas, not Asia or Europe. Both arrived in Ming China nearly 500 years ago.

Every dish, whether invented in 2011 CE or 2011 BCE, has a rich story attached to it. From that story, we can all find important patterns in world history, cultural development, domination and destruction within. It may not be the most profound thing I’ve ever stumbled upon. Still, I didn’t get this from Peter Stearns or Jared Diamond. If anything, I might’ve gotten this from Forrest Gump.


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